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Will Bibi blow up the conflict - and fracture the Israeli state?

It's tempting to greet the return of Benjamin Netanyahu for a sixth term as business as usual. His new allies, and the way he's accommodating them so far, suggests it's anything but. 

December 03 2022, 15.23pm

The new Israeli government is taking shape, and to any longtime observer of the conflict, the scene might seem wearily familiar. Yet again, Netanyahu is set to be sworn in as prime minister - for the sixth (!) time. Yet again, he is sabre-rattling about Iran. Yet again, riding on his coat-tails are a bunch of militant Jewish nationalists, the kind of people who make centrist Israelis want to emigrate and Diaspora Jews to engage in yet another round of soul-searching, trying to reconcile their broadly liberal domestic policies with unqualified support for a far-right ethno-nationalist state. 

And yet again, the veteran observer might conclude, very little will actually change. Most would-be emigres, won’t; the regional war long promised to break out with Iran won’t, either; and the Jewish extremists will find that running a real-life ministry and balancing the complex needs of a fractious coalition takes the sting out of radicalism and defers any meaningful break with the status quo. 

Leaving aside the question of Iran - which merits a separate column - this veteran observer might be right. Netanyahu’s tenures can each boast  junior coalition partners who were once hailed as outriders of the Apocalypse, but whose bark turned to be louder than their bite: Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai, Naftali Bennett. If anything, the latter turned out to be a sheep in a wolf’s clothing, ushering in the unlikely centrist-nationalist-Islamist alliance that formed the recently concluded interlude in twelve years of Bibi rule. How much worse can Itamar Ben Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich be? 

Actually, a couple of early indicators suggest that the short answer is “a lot”, and that this new government is very much not business as usual; for better or worse, the stasis that characterized Netanyahu’s first decade in power appears to be over. But before we go over the reasons why, a caveat. The first Netanyahu decade is only static if you are the kind of person whose only interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the two-state solution, and who only perceives something to be happening when yet another lackluster attempt is made toward the same. If you are Palestinian, or if you care about virtually any other aspect of life between the river and the sea, the Netanyahu years have been a steady, implacable glide from bad to worse, with Palestinian society increasingly beleaguered and the likelihood of any kind of self-determinaion, or the attainment of anything resembling rights, being rapidly squeezed out of existence. 

The net result of this stagnation is that the model that dominated all global thinking on the conflict - two independent states - is now geographically and politically impossible, no matter who takes the reigns. The two short-term alternatives are no longer “occupation” vs “peace”. They are, rather: the status quo of segregation (or “apartheid,” as more and more respected human rights groups call it, or “the three class solution”, if you are a Yuval Noah Harari fan); and expulsion - ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen since 1948, hence conversationally referred to as “a second Nakba.” 

That’s where Ben Gvir and Smotrich come in. Firstly, in contrast to most preceding far-right markers of Israeli cabinets, they are not segregationists, but expulsionists through and through. This new divide is now within the Israeli government itself, with proponents of expulsion claiming the power of life and death over Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister - without their support, it is unlikely he’ll cobble up a coalition. This is very much unlike with the previous most high-profile expulsionist to sit at an Israeli cabinet table: the late and very much unlamented Rehavam Ze’evi, who held a handful of seats and the the rather lacklustre title of Minister of Tourism under Ariel Sharon. 

Secondly, Smotrich and especially Ben Gvir are professional and highly accomplished provocateurs.You can pile up Ben Gvir with paperwork all you like, but if he deems it strategically promising, he’ll pull of one of his stunts  - say, saunter onto Temple Mount for ostentatious ritual prayer, except this time as a fully fledged minister and with a heavily armed escort. This won’t blow up just the coalition, but Jerusalem itself, and quite probably the conflict altogether. And this is just the bluntest, least sly instrument at his disposal. 

Thirdly, the coalition agreement formed is an unusually dangerous one, posing a risk not only to Palestinians and dissident Jews, but to the structural integrity of the Israeli state itself. Ben Gvir and Smotrich demanded the domestic security and defense portfolios, respectively. Netanyahu has - thankfully - declined, but then mollified by splitting up the ministerial responsibilities for Israel’s diverse security forces: Ben Gvir will now get command of the paramilitary Border Police - until now, parceled with the IDF, under the defense ministry and will have a direct command relationship with the Chief Inspector of the national police force, with the exception of criminal investigations. 

This lays the foundations for competition, rivalry and partisanship between Israel’s various armed forces, just when a steady hand and cohesion are called for. Even before we see just how Ben Gvir utilizes his new powers against domestic opposition and against Palestinians, this does not, to put it mildly, bode well - think about the competing security forces of Russia or Pakistan for a model. (Neither does the similar split of the Education Minsitry, where a whole chunk of the curriculum has been reassigned to the newly created National Identity ministry, helmed by a ferocioulsy homophobic ally of Ben Gvir’s.) 

The new government has barely started, so it would be a fool’s errand to prophesy how it would end. Still, there are some promising signs that even the all-forgiving Americans are no longer ready to give Israel unqualified support - a low bar, but one that is pleasing to encounter in real life nevertheless. These signals are yet to be tested, but this determination needs to be fostered and imitated by anyone who actually cares about the lives of Palestinians and Jews between the river and the sea. The benefit of the doubt given to Israeli policies by decision-makers and civil societies in the West needs to be reduced to sub-homeopathic quantities.